Gay rights leaders are facing an uphill battle with conservative Christians in their fight to win more legal protection against discrimination in Southern and Western states, The New York Times reported.
Wealthy Colorado software mogul Tim Gill is leading the charge to gain more basic rights for millions of homosexuals and lesbians in what advocates call the "final frontier" for gay activists – states such as Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas.
Although same-sex marriage is now approved in 17 states and Washington, D.C., compared to just Massachusetts 10 years ago, gays and lesbian are afforded little or no protection against discrimination in the South and West, the Times said.
But now Gill, who has donated $300 million of his own money to the cause, says his foundation plans to spend $25 million in conservative states over the next five years to push for more rights.
"Everybody should have the same rights and protections, regardless of where they were born and where they live," Gill said, while noting that Southern and Western states counter the growing trend in major cities and along U.S. coastlines. "We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist."
But religious leaders are likely to fight back against any legislation being introduced to protect gay rights that go against their faith, according to the Times.
"Mississippi has the highest church attendance per capita in the nation," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "People have strong convictions based on faith. It’s not an opinion. It is their understanding of religious truth. And they are not going to walk away from it just because it’s unpopular."
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said his group is opening up field offices in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas in the hope of influencing educators, local church leaders, NAACP officials, and political leaders to be more open about protection of gay rights.
"The prevalence of the closet presents a challenge far greater than what we’ve seen in the other regions of the country," Griffin said. "You risk being kicked out of your home. You risk discrimination on the job or being fired. You risk rejection at your place of religious celebration."
The HRC has earmarked $8.5 million to hire 20 people for its Project One efforts in the South to raise awareness about the lack of rights for gay parents.
The first battleground for gay activists will be in Houston next month when Annise Parker, the city’s openly gay mayor, will be hoping to push through an ordinance forbidding businesses and city agencies to discriminate against residents based on sexual identity, race or gender, the Times reported.
"Texas doesn’t recognize gay marriage, and I don’t see that changing," Parker said. "But people being able to work and pay taxes — it’s a much easier discussion."
Gill’s foundation and his political advocacy group, Gill Action Fund, are first targeting states such as Missouri and Texas for his gay rights lobbying efforts while recruiting donors for existing state organizations.
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee aiding lesbian and gay candidates, has set its sights on Idaho and Mississippi in a push to get gays into elected positions.
The American Civil Liberties Union
has stepped up its fight in Southern states where conservative lawmakers have introduced what the group perceives as discriminatory legislation against gays.
The Times called the switch to the new frontlines of the gay rights movement the biggest shift for advocates in a decade.
Gill is particularly concerned about the 29 states where gays may hide in the closet because it remains legal to fire employees for their sexual orientation – even though in the South and West they are more likely to be raising families than gay and lesbian couples in New York or California.
"I want them to look at the other 29 states where nothing has happened," Gill told the Times, referring to people who may sign up to help his cause. "I want them to say, 'How can we fix this?'"
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